A perennial-favorite native to North America, bee balm (Monarda spp.), also called wild bergamot, is beloved in flower beds for its display of beautiful blooms of red, pink, purple or white in mid- to late summer. The plants bear fragrant foliage, too. Here’s how to plant and grow bee balm in your garden!
About Bee Balm
In the garden, its most frequent visitors are hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and moths. These visitors have the long tongues required to reach the tubular flowers’ nectar. Bee balm is a favorite plant for bumblebees especially. Bumblebees and a few other insects are too big to get into some of the smaller tubular flowers of some bee balms, so the insects practice something called “nectar robbing.” The insects punch a tiny hole at the base of the flower to access the nectar, bypassing the flower’s pollen and “robbing” it of its nectar.
Check out this video to learn more about the benefits of growing bee balm:
Bee balm performs best in full sun, but will bloom in partial sun as well. Provide rich, well-draining soil with a neutral pH. Amend soil with compost or aged manure, if necessary, to improve its quality.
Bee balm is especially susceptible to powdery mildew, a fungal disease. To help prevent it, plant bee balm in a location that gets good air circulation.
When to Plant Bee Balm
Bee balm can be planted in the spring or in the fall.
Spring is the best time to divide existing plants and transplant.
How to Plant Bee Balm
Given its height (2-4 feet), bee balm makes for an excellent background plant in a pollinator garden.
Space plants 18-24 inches apart in rich, well-draining soil.
Give careful thought to placement. Without good air circulation, the leaves can develop powdery mildew. Reduce watering if this appears.
Water thoroughly at the time of planting.
Keep soil evenly moist throughout the growing season. Add mulch to preserve moisture and control weeds.
Fertilizer is not typically necessary. Apply only a sprinkling of a balanced fertilizer in spring, if desired. An excess amount of fertilizer can prompt powdery mildew and rapid or rampant succulent growth.
Deadhead faded blooms to encourage the plant to re-bloom in late summer. Deadheading the main stem allows the side shoots to develop and bloom. These, too, can be cut when flowers reach the size you want.
After the first frost in the fall, cut stems back to about 2 inches above the soil. (See local frost dates.)
Divide bee balm every 2 to 3 years to ensure its vigor. Clumps tend to die out from the center.
In the spring, make small divisions of the newer roots of established plants and replant.
After the first fall frost, leave seed heads for the birds or cut stems back to about 2 inches above the soil.
Monarda didyma is bright red and grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
M. fistulosa produces lavender-pink blooms in late summer.
M. pringleigrows 18 inches tall and is immune to powdery mildew. ‘Petite Wonder’ and ‘Petite Delight’ are pink varieties.
Other powdery mildew resistant bee balm varieties include ‘Marshall’s Delight’ (bright pink), ‘Jacob Cline’ (deep red), and ‘Raspberry Wine’ (dark red).
Bee balm is a lovely cut flower. The leaves are aromatic, which adds interest to an indoor arrangement. Cut the main stem flower just as it begins to open up. The plant’s side shoots will continue to develop and bloom. The side shoots can be cut for indoor enjoyment, too.
Wit and Wisdom
Native Americans and early colonists used bee balm leaves and flowers to make a variety of medicinal salves and drinks.
Bee balm is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Its foliage has a strong aroma and is sometimes used in herbal teas, salads, and as garnishes. The flowers are also edible.
Despite being called “wild bergamot,” bee balm is not used in “bergamot” tea (a.k.a. Earl Grey tea). The tea is made with oils extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a citrus fruit.
Powdery mildew: Powdery mildew commonly occurs on the foliage of bee balm if humidity is too high. Reduce watering if this is the case.